Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Post In Which I Praise Gary Bettman

The NHL has never been more popular. But Gary Bettman sucks, right?

I feel like if I keep writing this post my NHL fan card will be revoked because you cannot be a hockey fan and say nice things about Gary Bettman. One of the sport's newest traditions is to boo the living crap out of Bettman when he takes the ice to give out the Stanley Cup.

Is he really so bad?

For all the criticisms levied at Bettman in the past two decades, the past two weeks have produced arguably the best start to any NHL playoffs in history.

The Columbus/Pittsburgh series by itself featured four two-goal comebacks in a row. The Blues and Blackhawks went to overtime four times in five games. It has been mesmerizing each and every night.

gary bettman stanley cupThe ratings reflect that, even though the league has national coverage blacked out in local markets, making it tough to gauge its success versus the NBA, even though a supposedly reputably source like Forbes tried.

Still, Game 4 between the Boston Bruins and the Detroit Red Wings surpassed 1 million viewers. That is on a Thursday night, against shows like the Big Bang Theory and the NBA playoffs. There was even another NHL game going on! And it doesn't include one person who watched the game locally in Detroit or Boston.

It is, simply put, a remarkable number.

For all the bad decisions Bettman has made over the years, he made one decision that is so great that it, for all intents and purposes, makes up for all the others.

After the disastrous labor war that wiped out an entire season, there was a very vocal group of owners –  and an even more vocal group of hockey fans – that demanded the NHL remain on ESPN. It made sense. This was a pre-NBCSN and Fox Sports 1 era. There were many who assumed that by leaving ESPN meant leaving the national consciousness.

When the NHL had games on the then-poorly named Outdoor Life Network, these fears seemed realized. The ratings on OLN and then Versus were poor, which is being polite. While NBC did a great job of showcasing the league, NBC was in arguably the worst shape of any broadcast network has ever been in history.

The NHL and the NBC were both struggling. Somehow, less than a decade later, they are both thriving. ESPN has been forced to cover the league more because the league has more fans and are garnering more attention.

Thanks to the Voice, Sunday Night Football and The Blacklist, NBC now features shows people actually watch. Thanks to Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane and Alex Ovechkin, the NHL now features players people have actually heard of.

If the NHL had stayed on ESPN, does it become as popular? Does ESPN, overloaded with college basketball and the NBA, air as many games as NBCSN? Does ESPN take the lead in making the Winter Classic a New Year's Day tradition when it has the Rose Bowl? Does it bother with more outdoor games? Does it actually cover the sport more than it does now? Doesn't the NHL's position as the "outsider" sport too cool for ESPN actually help its brand?

Under Bettman, the quality of play has gone up exponentially in the past decade, after hitting a nadir with the trap-loving Devils. There are goals. There are great saves. There is energy in every arena because good players will be able to make good plays.

The game isn't perfect, but what sport is? The NFL may rule with an iron fist but has a concussion problem that would submarine any other corporation, were it not too big to fail.

Even the league's decision to move back to the divisional alignment that existed for two decades prior to Bettman changing to a conference set up a la the NBA has been a breath of fresh air, revitalizing rivalries and creating new ones. It just feels right to have the Flyers and Rangers, or Blackhawks and Blues, battling it out in round 1, giving some regional, old-school flavor to a sport that is defined by its tradition.

The NHL could be better. There should be 8 teams in every division. The Sun Belt expansion was too aggressive. The suspensions doled out by the NHL office vary too much and lack common sense at times. Fighting is still an issue that the league can't, or won't, figure out.

To take stock of where the NHL is compared to 10 years ago, or even 20 years ago, is absolutely remarkable. I don't think NHL fans give Bettman enough credit for what he's been able to accomplish.

When Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr won back-to-back Stanley Cups, the finals were aired in Connecticut where I grew up on SportsChannel. It doesn't exist anymore. And not all the games aired live.

When people talk about the NBA pre-Magic and Larry that was the NHL in 1992 despite being post-Gretzky.

Gary Bettman is an easy target. The NHL is still the fourth-most popular professional league in the United State. Based on the nature of the game itself – ya know, the ice part – that is likely never going to change. But the league is undoubtedly in a better position now that it has possibly ever been.

If we blame Bettman for everything, maybe he deserves a little credit too?

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